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Till debt do us part?

October 22, 2006|Jacob S. Hacker | JACOB S. HACKER, a professor of political science at Yale University and a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement -- And How You Can Fight Back."

AMID THE HYPE about the birth of the 300 millionth American last week, a bigger population milestone was largely ignored. For the first time, according to the Census Bureau, households headed by single people outnumber those headed by married ones.

It may seem unromantic, but marriage has always been a vital economic institution as well as a social one. A marriage is, among many things, a contract to secure the welfare of an economic unit that, in most cases, includes children. The tale of the last generation is how the value of that contract has declined, while its costs and risks have increased -- and how the vaunted nuclear family has suffered as a result.

Consider personal bankruptcy, one of the nation's biggest growth sectors of the last 20 years. In 2001, married people with kids were twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as single adults or childless couples. Even married couples without children were slightly more likely to file for bankruptcy than single adults.

Families also were more likely to lose their homes than were married couples without children or than single adults -- during an era in which foreclosure rates have skyrocketed. They also were much more likely to be behind on their credit card bills. And they were drowning in debt, with their median debt substantially exceeding their median annual income (according to the Federal Reserve Board's 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances), a level of debt not seen among any other household type.

Clearly, something is financially amiss with the once rock-solid American family. But what? Why hasn't the rising number of two-earner families protected more Americans from the risks of financial disaster?

The answer lies ultimately in a simple fact: To most families, a second income is not a luxury but a necessity in a transformed economy. The world has not stood still, after all, as women have entered the workforce. Wages for men have basically flat-lined. Although the unemployment rate has been low, the job market has become more uncertain, with roughly as large a share of workers involuntarily losing their jobs every three years as during the steep economic downturn of the early 1980s. The difficulty of balancing work and family has increased. And the costs of housing, education, healthcare and child care have exploded.

It is families that have born the brunt of these economic changes, and families that falter when, as is too often the case, the strain proves too much. The family used to be a refuge from risk. Today, it is the epicenter of risk. And, increasingly, families are a source of risk as well.

Because it takes more work and more income to maintain a middle-class standard of living, financial shocks are more threatening for families. What happens when a woman leaves the workforce to have children? What happens when a child is chronically ill? What happens when a spouse loses his or her job? And what happens when families fall apart?

We are not used to thinking of children as an economic liability, but the facts are clear. According to 2005 calculations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising a child to age 18 will cost almost $237,000 for a middle-income family. And that leaves out the upward-spiraling college tuition that is now a required ticket for admission into the middle class. Fully one-quarter of "poverty spells" -- periods in which family income drops below the federal poverty line -- begin with the birth of a child.

Spouses, of course, do not equally share the investment of time and money that raising children entails. Women still mostly care for the child -- and bear the greatest cost. Their careers are most likely to be disrupted by family events. If they work, their jobs are most likely to be low-paying and with poor benefits. And they are most disadvantaged when families fall apart.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the probability of a first marriage ending in divorce or separation within 10 years rose from about 14% in the early 1950s to more than 30% by the late 1980s, where it's largely remained. This isn't just an American problem: Across the Western world, divorce has become more common when and where women have gained greater economic autonomy. Yet, the financial effects of divorce on families -- and especially on women -- can nonetheless be devastating. In a two-earner world, parents raising kids mostly or entirely on their own face truly dire circumstances.

What's more, women who work longer hours are more likely to divorce than women who work fewer hours or don't have a job. This is a new -- and striking -- development: In the 1960s and 1970s, two-earner couples and one-earner couples were about equally likely to break up. By the 1980s, however, two-earner couples were about 40% more likely to break up.

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